We're living in an age where we have openly gay vicars in the Church of England, but no openly gay players in the Premier League. What gives?
According to Greg Clarke, Chairman of the Football Association, if a Premiership footballer were to come out as gay in 2016, he would still be vulnerable to "significant abuse." Speaking before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee earlier this week, Clarke added that it is the Association's role as a regulator to take a zero-tolerance stance on all kinds of prejudice and hatred among both players and fans, and "make sure that kind of aberrant behaviour is driven from the game."
"Be together. Act with class. Always move forward." These are the values of Arsenal FC, and CEO Ivan Gazidis also wants this to be how the club is seen by the LGBT community. For Gazidis, addressing discrimination in football is both personal and professional. His father was jailed for anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, instilling in him a strong belief in the importance of equality, but he also believes that LGBT inclusion makes sense for the sporting industry from an entirely practical perspective: "If you close yourself off to any segment of society, you're not going to be competitive."
The grim reality, though, is that the eleven guys in the dressing room aren't the barrier to having openly LGBT players, but rather the thousands of fans in the stadium. However, tolerance among football fandom is an upward curve, says Gazidis: "Arsenal audiences are more diverse than ever before."
He cites the Gay Gooners as a prime example of said diversity. The Gooners are the first and largest LGBT football fan group in the world, and they work with the club to promote its "Arsenal For Everyone" initiative. Comedian and long-time Arsenal supporter Matt Lucas has praised the organisation, saying: "young gay fans now feel included by the club in a way my generation never could."
"We've a long way to go as both a sport and society," says Gazidis, acknowledging that while there have been great strides in women's football, their male counterparts are lagging behind. But he believes this won't be the case for much longer, predicting that there will be openly gay players in the Premier League within the next five years. Not an entirely incredulous idea, when you consider that Amal Fashnu already claims to personally know "seven gay players" in the premiership right now.
We might like to think that we're living in a fairly evolved society, but it is still considered newsworthy whenever a public figure comes out of the closet. And this reaction is even more audible in sport, where athletes are idolised, and dated notions of masculinity are prized above a great many other traits. Until recently, it was likely that most people would be able to count the number of high profile gay athletes on just one hand: Tom Daley, Jason Collins, Gareth Thomas, Michael Sam. And for an athlete to come out before retiring from their sport is even rarer.
But as more people come out of the closet across varying sporting arenas, from rugby league player Keegan Hirst to Olympic medallist Gus Kenworthy, we can see that the response is proportionately more positive than previously. Attitudes are slowly changing. LGBT sports stars are now being embraced as role models and advocates for equality, which in turn helps to create a safer, more tolerant environment for gay people everywhere.
Just think of the positive impact an out gay man in the Premier League could have, not just in helping young football supporters struggling with their own sexuality, but in gaining LGBT allies among straight fans. Let's hope that Gazidis will be proven correct in his prediction sooner rather than later, and that we won't have to wait five whole years.
A version of this article originally appeared at Ogilvydo.
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